|Van Meegeren and his (forgery) Christ in the Temple, (c) NY Times|
Pietist Mennonite practices regarding the daily devotional are as intrinsic to the Russian Mennonite identity as is verenika – in fact, one is surprised to learn that there was a revival of Bible study and devotions in Gnadenfelde under the influence of Eduard Wüst – when had it ended?
Personal study of the Bible and searching the Scriptures for oneself is an intrinsic aspect of the Anabaptist revolution – the first Adult Baptisms were performed only after intense study of the Scripture. Schools were started, Bibles translated and preachers sent out to encourage other Christians and non-Christians to discover this direct personal access to Christ’s teachings for themselves. Even more than pacifists or Adult Baptizers, the term Students of the Bible would most adequately describe the well-spring and radical vision of our Swiss, Flemish and Frisian predecessors.
No story reveals this truth more strongly than the personal testimony of Menno Simons – the teacher whose leadership helped to preserve and re-organize the early Anabaptist church antecedents of our various conferences and denominations today.
Testimony of Menno Simons
Move on to the Family Altar
While daily devotionals were printed and handed-down in the German language – often from the ethnic printing houses of Elkhart and Cincinnati, most contemporary evangelical Mennonites will hearken back to childhoods spent listening to parents and grandparents reading aloud, always before breakfast, from the Radio Bible Class’ Our Daily Bread – a simple publication sent out every couple months to the radio ministry’s supporters across North America. The format was simple – a recommended Scripture reading of a few verses, a catchy title – always read with the confidence of conviction, a couple of supporting Scripture verses and then a short essay or devotional containing a simple lesson with a straight forward point for further thought, a catchy line of poetry at the end to seal the deal.
Admittedly, the lessons were sometimes difficult to get through – our stomachs would feel like they were ready to explode. Thankfully, Grandma was smarter than others and would usually not place breakfast on the table until after Grandpa had finished the grace.
After my grandfather died, it was an amazing gift to find a couple of home recordings of him reading Our Daily Bread lessons with their related scriptures. The tapes were old and had been made for his mother, my great-grandmother, in Dallas, Oregon. Part of taking care of her in her old age was to read the devotionals to her via tape. These are a family treasure beyond compare.
Interestingly, my father does not share my appreciation of these devotions or the tapes. A modern Anglo-American Evangelical, he found the daily ritual of Our Daily Bread to be cold, empty and forced – a practice he was glad to be rid of. At the same time, I am not sure what he does to be fed – I have very little spiritual bind to his faith – I never really feel as though I had participated in it. Thankfully, my mom was a bit more pragmatic – and adaptive. While we did not do morning devotions at the table, she would have us sit down for a quiet time and listen to Bible lessons over the radio.
|Courtesy KGLE Radio, Glendive, MT|
In communities such as Lustre, where Saturday cartoons were mostly unavailable, we spent our mornings listening the Saturday line-up of KGLE AM Christian Radio – Glendive (still on the air and on the Net). Before Focus on the Family, there was Ranger Bill, Children’s Bible Hour with Uncle Charlie, Children’s Story Hour with Uncle Dan and Aunt Sue and the radio dramas of Unshackled, produced by Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission.
Many of us developed our own personal devotional habits and lifestyle with our first Keys for Kids, a children’s devotional published by Children’s Bible Hour Ministries and very similar to Our Daily Bread but just for kids – and simple enough that we could read it for ourselves.
Reflecting on today’s divide between the secular sciences and spiritual culture, we saw no dichotomy between our Ranger Rick Magazines and our Keys for Kids – together they were our link to understanding the world beyond ourselves.
In many ways, we had progressed only slightly as an ethnic literary culture. Our grandparents learned by to read and their German by reading the Bible aloud before breakfast and before bed. We were doing the same – only in English and with the help of Christian radio personalities and materials. Somewhat backwards-looking – I have always had a higher tolerance and appreciation for radio than for television due to this experience. (Growing up with Paul Harvey broadcast every day at noon did not hurt either.)
For Mennonites, this early training and dependency on devotional literature for reading material and intellectual understanding, placed us far ahead of our mainstream Evangelical peers both in scriptural understanding and in devotional maturity. One of the most heinous tasks for many of us was to go backwards in time to do the basic AWANA Bible study projects – in 5th grade. We were already leading our own small groups and devouring Chuck Swindoll, Matthew Henry, J. Vernon McGhee, C. S. Lewis and Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. The pain of an AWANA study, appropriate for new believers in high school, was like putting training wheels back on your bike or hitting a baseball off the tee. (Just a quick note to today’s AWANA parents – if your kids are going through their study books two or three times and earning the big brass trophies – they aren’t growing. Your kids aren’t spiritual brainiacs – they are bored – and spiritual boredom can be a dangerous thing. Feed them.)
|Old Friend - New Formats|
Recently, my cousin commented on my Facebook that his wife thought he was sounding more and more like my grandfather reading the Our Daily Bread … “only I haven’t started saying ‘Ja … well, ok then’ yet.”
Like my cousin, I continue to read Our Daily Bread when available. It is light and informative – like a muffin with your breakfast. Nor do I read it solely for the spiritual value – I openly admit that I also feel a strong connection to my grandparents and my great-grandparents when I read it – and I remember listening on my own to Bible lessons broadcast on KGLE. It is my way of being nourished but also of belonging – connecting with my faith heritage, my family and the church family in which I grew up. Sometimes, tradition and a shared ritual can be a good thing.